Massachusetts Declares Office Open XML 'Suitable' Format

In what could be Microsoft's most symbolic victory to date in the battle to legitimize the principal formats used by its Office applications, the State of Massachusetts officially declared Office Open XML -- the new standard format set in Office 2007 -- "another standardized XML-based file format specification suitable for office applications."

The declaration, which came as part of a review draft of version 4.0 of the state IT division's Enterprise Technical Reference Model (ETRM), states that the standard document format it refers to by its standards agency designation ECMA-376 is one adequate candidate for use as an open, XML-based format, as well as OpenDocument Format.

In a bombshell move in September 2005, the division advised the state to only use XML formats for its official documents, at a time when OpenOffice and its variants appeared to be the only viable applications for achieving that goal.

At the time, the ITD's decision was interpreted as a state endorsement of ODF. Today, the state isn't backing away from ODF as a viable format; it's adding OOXML to that list, and citing Office 2007's legacy support for older, proprietary formats - especially during the transition period - as a key benefit.

"The specification [OOXML] has been approved by Ecma International as an open standard," reads the current 4.0 draft. "This XML-based document format was developed to ensure the highest levels of fidelity with legacy documents created in proprietary Microsoft Office binary document formats such as .doc, .xls, and .ppt."

While the draft of the state's standards specification has yet to be declared official and is open to commentary, the fact that the state would offer the statement for comments and approval shows it's willing to accept Microsoft applications as having moved away from their formerly proprietary approach to document encoding.

The danger in that approach was that, as the format's proprietor made changes to it for evolutionary purposes (or for whatever other reason), older state documents might no longer be usable within newer applications.

The effect would be like the population of the state suddenly having awakened to speaking and writing in a language other than English, and requiring interpreters to re-scribe its legislative codes and court decisions.

Elsewhere, the 4.0 draft specification reads, "All agencies are expected to migrate away from proprietary, binary office document formats to open, XML-based office document formats. Microsoft Office 2003, currently deployed by the majority of agencies, will support the use of ODF document formats through a translator software solution."

That statement is an indication that the state does want its agencies to move away from the Office 2003 format, but not necessarily the Office 2003 applications.

Although Massachusetts' current opinion is not a reversal of its 2005 stance on open document formats, some observers may be altering their own opinions. In 2005, after the state announced its stance, Linux Foundation board member and attorney Andrew Updegrove wrote, "Massachusetts, like all other states, has an extremely large and complex IT infrastructure that has grown by accretion over many years...In an effort to better manage this historical legacy and ensure the greatest utility at the minimum cost to taxpayers, the ITD has developed a number of policies and guidelines that are regularly updated as needs and available solutions evolve over time...The ETRM, in turn, provides the detailed roadmap for carrying this policy into action, and forms the cornerstone of Massachusetts' concerted effort to transform its IT infrastructure into a lower cost, more durable, vendor-independent, cohesive platform for its operations."

Today, in a statement to reporters, Updegrove questions whether detailed roadmaps should be allowed to carry policy into action.

"In a larger sense, the issue of whether to include OOXML or not involves weighing more subjective details," he writes, "such as whether Ecma is as 'open' as OASIS, and whether it should matter whether a standard with (still) a single implementation (Office) should be granted the same status as another (ODF) with something like 30 adopters today. And finally whether governments, and especially their unelected IT divisions, should implement social policy through procurement. These are difficult distinctions for civil servants like CTOs to make and defend."

Update ribbon (small)

6:00 pm ET July 2, 2007 - In perhaps the clearest indication to date that enough is never enough, the Association for Competitive Technology – which in 2005 condemned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ move toward ODF adoption as anti-competitive – this afternoon condemned the state yet again, this time for overlooking citizens’ needs in the name of adopting open standards.

“The new ETRM is an important step in the right direction,” writes ACT president Jonathan Zuck, “and recognizes there are many formats deserving of consideration, including Rich Text Format, OpenXML, and the newest versions of the Open Document Format (ODF) and Portable Document Format (PDF). Unfortunately, it still falls short of achieving the kind of goals-based policy that would give Massachusetts the flexibility it needs [to] serve all its citizens. While the administration has done much to improve the inherited policy, it still may harm small businesses and under-represented groups of citizens.”

The ACT is a trade organization that includes Microsoft and that backed Microsoft during its antitrust trial in the US. “The administration” to which Zuck refers is that of newly sworn-in Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat who replaced Republican Mitt Romney, now a candidate for President. Zuck’s implication is that Massachusetts’ acceptance of Open XML as an open standard may have emerged from the change at the center chair.

A 2005 letter by Zuck to the Massachusetts IT Division advised that rather than locking its users into a single format, it could choose to work with the vendor directly to help it move its documents to new formats whenever the time to do so arose. “The need to have permanent access to the data moving forward is laudable, but can be achieved though agreements with vendors rather than locking the state into a quickly outdated format,” Zuck wrote. “By implementing any of the available XML schemas, the data itself will always be available, and third party companies will be able to write software tools to move the data forward from one generation to the next. By locking the Commonwealth into just one XML schema, you lose the advantage of innovation, with no real gain in data access.”

In today’s statement, Zuck acknowledges that the Commonwealth is opening itself to multiple standards instead of just one, but now says it’s the wrong kind of openness. “The one real limitation to the policy is the rigid definition of ‘open standard’ used in the ETRM,” he writes today. “The policy limits the Commonwealth’s choices to ’open standards,’ when the goals could be achieved with merely ‘open formats.’ While small firms are often willing to open up their formats and technologies, they often do not have the political clout to move their formats through an open standards body the way IBM, Sun, and Microsoft have done. Yet, these small firm technologies may better meet the needs of the Commonwealth and individual agencies.”

Zuck did not go on to list any “merely open formats” which would qualify for such consideration.

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